The Future Of The Irish Language Essay

Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam. Even if you are just one of the “cúpla focal” brigade, you will most probably recognise the phrase - “A country without a language is a country without a soul.”

It harks back to the earliest language revivalists in the century past and their attempts to codify in a few words the importance of the Irish language to Ireland. It is an older version of “Yes, we can!” if you will.

Those early revivalists, lacking money and influence, were most definitely rolling Sisyphus’s rock up the hill. They began the fight for the Irish language - and in particular the Gaeltacht - when Ireland was united but part of the British Empire. (“Why do we need Irish? Everyone speaks English.”) Ireland is now partitioned but the words still true in both jurisdictions for those who speak the language.

It is entirely appropriate that questions as to how effectively the language is promoted and supported, North and South, are asked. It is right and proper that politicians and political parties are scrutinised about what they say and what they do, North and South. It is right, proper and encouraging that the future of the Gaeltacht is a topic of public debate and that the means to keep the language alive in its cradle are discussed and implemented.

After all, a language community is a fairly simple thing - it is people who live in the same place speaking the same language!

Undoubtedly, the Gaeltacht gives the language its authority - the Gaeltacht is the unbroken link back through the centuries that ties the Irish speaker in Dublin and Belfast with the language as it once was, as a language that stretched from coast to coast - and still does, just about! At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the place names of Ireland show that much. There is other evidence too in literature and song - but not always as readily available to the average English speaker or, indeed, Irish speaker.

Yet the Gaeltacht is both a physical and metaphysical entity. The physical borders - those little An Ghaeltacht signs - do not mean that you cross over from one territory to another, like you pass from France to Germany, with a resulting uniform language shift. They are more like a promise that, out there in the landscape, you will, eventually, find a native speaker, much as you will, eventually, find a whale in the Atlantic. (Do you find the whale any less magnificent, any less wondrous, because they are so few?)

As children and adults prepare for their courses in the summer colleges we accept that they will find Irish or, at the very least, that Irish will be brought to them in the Gaeltacht. We should be amazed that it is happening at all. The fact that there are traditional Gaeltacht regions of native speakers in seven of Ireland’s 32 counties is astounding. The fact that there are still pockets of native speakers in all four of Ireland’s provinces is astonishing.

This country has suffered centuries of colonialisation, war, famine, emigration and economic hardship and the Gaeltacht still stands. The Roman Empire has fallen, as has the British one, the Spanish one and the Austro-Hungarian one. The Aztec and Mayans have left nothing behind but dead (and beautiful) stone. And the Gaeltacht survives.

That it is under threat and that it will always be under threat is, unquestionably, true. That we should, with every fibre in our body, do all we can to preserve and support the Gaeltacht is also true. That we are often too busy with other issues is, alas, equally true.

We are not good with metaphysical concepts. Were the Gaeltacht a vineyard, growing a unique grape variety, we would probably easier understand its importance to us and the world. After all, we are all awfully bourgeois now and know the value of a good glass of red!

The Gaeltacht is as much a faith community as it is a linguistic one. In a very profound way, native speakers, and many other Irish speakers, have kept faith with the language; every word uttered is a prayer, a verbal expression in praise of another kingdom, a sigh from this Vale of Linguistic Tears.

Therein is one of the biggest challenges facing language groups. A country without a language is a country without a soul. A soul? The dominant culture in which we move is one in which value is placed on what can be bought, sold and screwed. It is easy enough to sell your soul but impossible to buy one. How do you protect a faith community; how do you get more people to join the prayer group?

Pól Ó Muirí is Irish Language Editor

We're answering recurring questions from Snapchat (six25points) here. All answers relate to Higher Level Irish.

You may also like: Guide to Leaving Cert Irish (€) and Irish HL Paper 1 and 2 timing

1. What is the best way to study for the essay question? Would you recommend learning phrases or complete essays?


Firstly, I suggest learning phrasing that can be used in a variety of essays. 

I also recommend learning a variety of proverbs (seanfhocail) which can be incorporated easily into essays, such as 'Is fearr súil le glas ná súil le huaigh' (it's better to be optimistic).

I suggest you focus on learning vocabulary for specific titles, such as the health system, the economy, the Irish language, drugs/alcohol, young people, immigration, international relations (Brexit/ Donald Trump), the environment, terrorism, refugee crisis.... The election of Donald Trump, Brexit, the refugee crisis, the health system etc. are just some examples of current topics that may make an appearance in some form on the paper. I suggest learning vocabulary specific to these issues.

2. Can I choose the poem I read in the Oral examination?


No, the examiner decides which poem you read. 

This part of the exam is often overlooked in preparation for the oral as people see it as 'easy marks'

I recommend listening to podcasts in order to ensure your pronunciation is perfect. Once you have perfected this, make sure you are reading the poem in an appropriate tone. The examiner should sense the emotion in your words. The poem should not be read in a monotone.

3. Can the Irish Oral examination be based around the content of the picture series (sraith pictiúr) you are given? For example, if my picture series is 'cuairt ar aintín i Nua Eabhrac' will i be asked about holidays, shopping, etc?


The picture series you are given is completely separate to the conversation between you and the examiner. 

The important thing to remember is you lead the conversation in the Oral
For example, if you say you have a cousin in Australia, the examiner might ask you if you intend to pay them a visit. If you say you're saving your money for the summer, the examiner might ask you about holidays. Anything you say in passing may be perceived as a hint to the examiner to ask you further questions on that topic.

4. Would you have any tips for the picture series (sraith pictiúr) element of the Irish Oral examination?


You have four minutes to speak on the picture series in the exam. Personally, I would do my best to learn off as many phrases as I could for each picture series. You need to practice doing the picture series as much as possible. If you don't have anything learned off, it is easy to get quite stressed in the exam and you may not be able to think of good phrases on the spot and under time restraint. Move chronologically through the picture series. 

Say the picture number before you start on a new picture to keep you focused and to let the examiner know you have moved onto the next picture

..iPictiúr a haon... pictiúr a dó... pictiúr a trí.. Make sure you devote the same amount of time to preparing each picture series. Try to learn off phrases that can work well with different picture sequences. Learning proverbs (seanfhocail) that you can fit in easily is also a good idea. 

For example, 

  • Níl tuile dá mhéad nach dtránn. (Every bad thing comes to an end).
  • Imíonn an tuirse ach fanann an tairbhe. (the tiredness goes but the benefits stay)
  • Tús maith leath na hoibre (a good start is half the work)
  • Is maith an scéalaí an aimsir (time will tell)
  • Ní thagann ciall roimh aois (sense doesn't come before age)
  • Is fearr súil le glas ná súil le huaigh (it's better to be optimistic)
  • Ní neart go cur le chéile (there's strength in unity)

See more tips and an example of sraith pictiúr here.


5. What topics should I prepare for the Irish Oral examination?


1. Yourself (What kind of a person are you? Chatty? Studious? )

2. Your family(Who do you live with? Do you get along with them? What do your parents work at? )

3. Where you live (Facilities/ What kind of area is it?/ Any problems in your area? / What do you do for fun?)

4. Your school (your subjects/ the school day/ school rules/ the leaving cert/education system/points system)

5. The future (what do you want to do next year and why / college)

6. Hobbies (sport /music /reading/cinema )

7. Social media (do you use Facebook/twitter)

8. The weekend (describe what you to at the weekend- study/shopping ....)

9. Holidays ( Have you any plans? Where did you go last year?)

10. The Gaeltacht and the Irish language ( Have you ever been to the Gaeltacht? Do you like Irish? What can be done to promote Irish? ....)

11. The environment

12. The economy

13. Immigration/emigration ... (Brexit/ Donald Trump)

If you want to talk about your love of the Irish language, drop hints. For example, when she asks you about your family, say I'm always trying to get my sister to speak Irish at home. Or, if you are asked about school, say Irish is your favourite subject.

If you mention America, you may get asked your opinion on Donald Trump. If you mention you live on a farm, be prepared to talk about farming life.

Never give one word answers. 

If you are asked a question, such as 'Do you have an interest in politics?' and you don't wish to speak about this, don't just say 'No'. You could say you haven't a clue of what's going on in politics, you're too busy preparing for the Leaving Cert - or you'd much rather watch your favourite TV show than look at the news. Broadly speaking, try to keep up to date on current affairs as it is possible that you may be asked questions on current topics in the exam.

6. Should I continue speaking in the Irish Oral examination or allow the examiner to ask questions?


You should speak as though you are having a conversation with the examiner. For example, if she asks you where you live, you could say... I live in ____, its a lovely town in the country. There are lots of facilities in the town, such as a post office, a sports hall .... (continue talking about your town). Be very careful about what you may say in passing. For example, if you say you the youth club in the town is great, be prepared to expand on this. If you want to talk about the problems of drugs and alcohol, you could say: there's a pub in the town, but unfortunately there's often lots of fights outside it at night. I don't drink, but a lot of my friends go to the pub... Don't suddenly jump from listing the facilities in the town to talking saying that the health system is in ruins, for example. Let the conversation flow. 

Continue to expand on the question asked until the examiner interrupts. 

Be careful that you don't speak as though you are reciting material. Keep eye contact, don't speak too fast and try to use a tone appropriate to what you are saying. Communication is key.

7. What is the best way to prepare for the poetry and prose section of paper two?


I suggest going through the poem/short story and making sure you understand exactly what is going on. The poem will be given to you in the exam, so it is important that you understand every word of it. While preparing for the exam, take notes under headings, such as: the life of the poet, the theme, emotions in the poem, symbolism, use of language etc.

For the prose section, I recommend reading through the piece quite frequently in the build up to the exam to make sure you are very familiar with it. I also suggest taking notes under headings, such as the theme, characters, the insight we get from reading/watching etc. These headings may vary slightly from one piece to another.

8. Grammar - when is 't' used, for example 'rithim an tsaoil' vs 'an saol'?


This is an example of the 'tuiseal ginideach' (genitive case). 

9. Grammar- what is the rule for Irish nouns beginning with 's' in the Tuiseal Ginideach( genitive case)? For example, 'sochaí/suirbhé'


This depends on whether the word is masculine or feminine. Being able to incorporate the genitive case easily into your phrases will impress an examiner and may give you an edge in the exam. I suggest spending time trying to understand the 'tuiseal ginideach' as it is very important. There are some hints we can use to help us figure out whether a noun is masculine or feminine and these should be learned. You should also pay attention to the fact that there are exceptions to the rule. 

If you are not sure how how to put a certain word into the genitive case in the exam, don't guess, use a different word that you are more familiar with.
Masculine nouns beginning with 's' don't change after the word 'an', e.g. An sagart, an séipéal. But feminine nouns starting with 's', take a 't'... an tseachtain, an tsaotharlann. 

More notes will follow shortly.

10. Would you have any predictions for the poetry or prose question?


I would not advise basing your study around predictions. What happens if your prediction is incorrect? I advise you to study all poems and prose pieces. Predictions are for those who don't have the time to look over each poem/prose. I recommend you make the time.

11. Our teacher provides us with excellent notes and were advised to learn everything off, is this a good method?


Learning notes off is fine, but you need to make sure you answer the question in a relevant manner rather than reciting something vaguely related from the notes. In the exam, you will be asked to answer a specific question, and the examiner will notice straight away if you are just reciting notes. This is particularly important when answering the poetry and prose section. 

Always link back to the question. 

After you have studied a particular poem or prose, I suggest taking out your exam papers and doing a question. Use your notes when answering the question but make them relevant by linking back to the question being asked. 

12. I'm worried that my notes are too basic and not 'flowery' enough. I've been getting H1s all year but my work has only been corrected by my teacher. I fear that another examiner may not award me with the same mark. Should I be concerned? Is it possible to guarantee a H1 if you are not a native speaker? 


I'm not a native speaker, but I went into the exam quite confident that I could get top results. The key to doing well in Irish is your level of fluency. Take whatever chance you have to speak Irish, listen to Irish radio stations and read Irish newspapers. See if there are any after school groups in your area where they gather together and speak Irish. There may be some residential courses over the Easter break solely aimed at preparing students for the oral exam. This may be worth looking into if you feel you need to improve your level of fluency.

In regards to the your concern that your notes are too basic, you could see if it is possible for you to ask another Irish teacher to give you a second opinion on some of your Irish answers. Good phrases and 'seanfhocail' will go along way to improving the quality and standard of your answers. First of all, make sure you are answering the question. Then see how you can work on the quality of your phrasing. For example...

  • 'I'm healthy' : Tá sláinte an bhradáin agam / Táim chomh folláin le breac
  • 'Getting worse' : ag dul ó ghiolla na sliogán go giolla na mbairneach
  • 'He's working ' : Tá sé i mbun oibre 
  • 'He did his best ' : Rinne sé a seacht ndícheall
  • 'They did great work': Rinne siad obair na gcapall / D'oibrigh said go dian dícheallach
  • 'I hate it' : Ní lú orm an diabhal ná é
  • 'I don't have any time to myself ': Ní bhíonn faill suí ná seasamh agam
  • 'It cant be denied': Ní féidir a shéanadh
  • 'There's no sense to it': Níl ciall ar bith leis
  • 'Forever and ever/always': Fad is a bheidh an ghrian sa spéir 
  • 'She couldn't decide' : Bhí sí idir dhá chomhairle
  • ''The real truth' : An fhírinne lom
  • 'The climax came': Tháinig an buaicphointe
  • 'It's clear we don't have the same view': Is léir nach é an dearcadh céanna atá againn go léir'
  • 'I don't have a clue..': Níl a fhios agam ó thalamh am domhain 
  • 'First of all' : Ar an gcéad dul síos/ I dtosach báire / Ar dtús 

13. For question four on paper two, should I prepare 'An Triail' or spend my time preparing for the extra poetry?


I recommend doing whatever question your teacher has decided she will prepare with the class. For my Leaving Cert, I answered on 'A Thig ná Tit orm' because this was what my teacher was preparing with the class. My advice is to prepare one and prepare it well. 



Written by Laura who achieved 7 A1s in her Leaving Cert. 

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